Devon J. Wells: Navigating the Rivers of Change: Building Bridges, Motivating, and Inspiring to Do It Different

By Devon J. Wells

Change is a common topic in the fire service today. Whether there are discussions on science from the Underwriters Laboratories and National Institute of Standards and Technology studies, the changing emergency medical services environment to provide “community paramedicine,” or how to staff fire apparatus with fewer people, change is a common thread in all of those topics. How do we navigate through all of this change and o use it to lead our agencies?

This topic involves four important subject areas: philosophy, leadership, change, and training. How do they all work together? What do they have in common? It can be summed up in one sentence. Change needs to be based on the philosophy the department leadership uses to train its members.

Organizational Philosophy

The organizational philosophy encompasses the beliefs held by the organization and a general systematic approach to how the department functions. The philosophy includes common statements like the vision, mission, and values of the agency. Each of these statements sets the base for actions taken by the membership. The vision is a forward looking “dream” of what the organization can achieve. It needs to be realistic, but it can stretch the imagination and get members to reach for a distant goal. The mission explains why the organization exists. It should be short, simple, and easy to memorize. The values statement is a collective list of personal values the membership holds in high regard. They are guiding principles the leadership reinforces throughout the accomplishment of the mission and while striving to reach the vision.

Once there is a solid, agreed upon, and adopted organizational philosophy, the members can use it as a basis for their leadership development. Leaders must be capable of revitalizing or establishing the shared philosophy. They need to show the other members of the department a plan to build bridges over gaps that exist. Leaders must align their actions with the organizational philosophy to hold others accountable to that same statement.

One of the most successful ways to revitalize and draw attention to the philosophy of the organization is through a gap analysis. There are many ways to perform a gap analysis that can be researched on the Internet. A gap analysis provides a picture of where the organization is today and where it wants to be in the future. Once that portion of the analysis is done, timelines can be created and plans set in motion to accomplish the objectives. The analysis should be done with the organizational philosophy in mind, using the vision, mission, and values statements as guiding principles. This simple exercise can build more team dynamics, invigorate the minds of the people involved, and create a changed environment in your agency.

Some of the ideas that come out of gap analysis may be outside of the normal thinking. That’s OK! We need to take more opportunities to engage the positive outlier thinking. Use that positive outlier to move your agency in a positive direction. Don’t shun these members or try to “normalize” their thinking. That’s exactly the opposite of being progressive. True, sometimes the “weird” thoughts that come out of gap analysis and “dreaming” sessions are a little too far outside the proverbial box, but that’s OK too! We often learn the best leadership lessons when we fail at something. Get a vision, take an action on that vision, and let it gain momentum. Who knows? It may be the next best invention.

Once your gap analysis is completed and a set of plans are in motion and new ideas are surfacing, you will need to train. Training has been the one area of the fire service that leads change and ushers in new strategies, tactics, and equipment. Through training, all change is engaged. Think about the evolution from bucket brigades to modern firefighting nozzles. There was a lot of training that took place to get from there to today. It did not just happen by adoption. Consider a football team and how it prepares to play for its weekly games. It practices (or trains) until everyone knows the plays (or strategies), their positions (or roles), and what to do in case of road bumps (or emergencies) that may arise during the game (or incident). It is quite similar to training in the fire service, right?

The offense’s main objective is to advance the ball across the line of scrimmage, hopefully to the point of scoring a touchdown. Similarly, the fire department leadership’s objective is to advance the department across the progress line to eventually provide the highest level of service to the community. Each position in the department has a responsibility to act in its respective function with the highest efficiency and execution. Unfortunately, there is a defense in the fire service that tries to stop that forward progression such as closed minds, unsafe acts, negativity, and many more negative traits. It is the leadership of the department (not always the Officers) that gets the forward progress moving and keeps those negative traits from stopping the department.

Once you have the philosophy in place, leadership buy in, and a training system established to carry out those objectives, change will occur naturally. There will always be resistance to change. However, resistance is what tests the change and makes the progress even more promising.  Transition always includes some anger, fear, hostility, and guilt. Eventually, you will see gradual acceptance and experience a feeling of moving forward. This is a natural reaction to any change, big or small. Gaining an understanding of this process is important for change leaders. Thinking and acting positively while staying focused on the goal is important. Do not lose sight of the reason for the change. Do not be afraid to look ahead.

Remember, if we always do the same things we have always done, we can expect to receive the same things we always have. If your agency is designed to yield the results you now have, change the design. Be the change agent, the person who dreams and goes out to make a difference each and every day. One of the most recognized quotes on motivation is from a sports montage featuring Eric Thomas, Ray Lewis, and Les Brown. It states, “There will never be a point in your life where it’s the right time to do a great thing.” Follow that guidance. Go out and do something phenomenal. Make a difference. Make a change, no matter how big or small. Be a leader.


Devon Wells is the fire chief of Hood River (OR) Fire & EMS. He is a 23-year veteran of the fire service and is the 1st vice president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. He presents at conferences across the country on safety, motivation, leadership, rural firefighting, and organizational philosophy.